Assumptions About the Basics

"I'm just going to teach it again from the basics."

This approach makes some assumptions:

  • Students that didn't understand the topic on a first exposure will benefit from just seeing the topic be developed again.
  • Students that did understand the first time will get confirmation of what they remember.
  • Colleagues that taught this in the past didn't necessarily cover everything, so this ensures students see a complete presentation of the topic.

All of these are assumptions that serve a teacher-centered classroom model. No teacher wants to be to blame when a student forgets an essential component of knowledge for a given topic, I get that. I have a hard time seeing the presentation of a complete topic as anything other than a checklist of items for a teacher to present.

What does a student do in this context? Why does the student that remembers everything have to sit through tasks that they demonstrably know how to complete? Why would we expect a student that struggled after a first exposure to benefit from seeing the same sequence of topics, but made "harder" by some arbitrary measure associated with course or grade?

I prefer the idea that we instead present students with a task that demands the knowledge and skills that are outcomes of the course. Tasks like open middle and 3-Act problems let us see where students are in the continuum of knowledge and problem solving. There are plenty of resources we can use to fill in the gaps for students where they exist - this is where online resources and activities shine. As teachers, we truly add value when we can build intellectual need for what we teach and foster discussion about interesting challenges and thought process. Most importantly, we can provide feedback that is focused and personal.

If I had to identify one fundamental change to my teaching philosophy over the last several years, it would be the acknowledgement that students are not blank slates. Assuming they are doesn't serve any of them well. Teaching compliance and patience to the strongest students is a pretty low level goal. Teaching what we say are the basics to those that never understood the basics in the first place disrespects these students as well.

Let's stop assuming we need to give our own overview of a topic. We aren't as good at it as we think we are. This only reinforces the idea that students are hungry and waiting for us to give them the knowledge they can't obtain any other way.

We must aim much higher than that.

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